Curatorial Studies

Me, Myself and I

Jiao Feng

The Curatorial Vocabularies Glossary is an expanding collection of terms derived from the seminar of the same name. This seminar serves as a dynamic platform for contemplation and discussion, with a primary focus on pertinent issues within the contemporary curatorial field. Through a keyword-based approach, the seminar delves deep into curatorial discourse, actively engaging with current knowledge and ongoing discussions surrounding curatorial practices. The aim is to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the profound artistic, economic, and political transformations unfolding within the art world, and how these affect and transform curatorial practice.

“Me, myself and I”
——The Diaries on the process of re/writing and re/locating

Years do odd things to identity.
What does it mean to say
I am that child in the photograph
at Kishamish in 1935?
Might as well say I am the shadow
of a leaf of the acacia tree
felled seventy years ago
moving on the page the child reads.
Might as well say I am the words she read
or the words I wrote in other years,
flicker of shade and sunlight
as the wind moves through the leaves.
——URSULA K. LE GUIN, Leaves, 2018

Most recently, after navigating through a series of complex formalities, I relocated to Belgium and enrolled in the Curatorial Studies program.

I decided to move away from China primarily due to the stringent pandemic regulations imposed by the government. While residing in Beijing, I was required to undergo nucleic acid testing every three days simply to gain entry into restaurants and public establishments. Unlike most of the other countries that had already reopened, China lagged behind. This discord became an overwhelming burden for me, as expressing any differing opinions about the government was strictly prohibited. I can do nothing other than complain to my close friends.

Prior to my relocation, I dedicated years of my life working as an art worker in China, driven by my fellow artists. During my tenure at the Huayu Youth Award, a non-profit foundation supporting young Chinese artists, I had the privilege of reviewing over 100 artist portfolios annually. Over time, I witnessed a significant transformation in the database, with a growing number of Chinese artists trained by Western art schools. A striking phenomenon unfolded: the inability to speak English became a barrier to achieving professional opportunities. It was an odd and uncomfortable situation. After 40 years surviving since contemporary art started in mainland China, Chinese artists still grappled with the complex dichotomy between East and West. Being merely a Chinese artist was no longer sufficient; they were compelled to explore their artistic practices through a Western lens and communicate in an international language, rather than their own. With this foreign tongue, would they truly have their own voices?

To me, engaging in curatorial studies has been a trip to debunk misconceptions. I find myself deeply perplexed by everything I witnessed in China. Most of the time, we had naively embraced Western notions that held little relevance in the context of Chinese contemporary art. Moreover, our inability to openly criticize the power structure has further exacerbated the challenges we face.

On one hand, we remain astonished and jubilant at the ever-increasing auction prices, succumbing to the dictates of the market economy. On the other hand, artists painstakingly search for their own artistic language, yearning to find their place within the hegemony of the Western-influenced art world. Lastly, due to government control over freedom of expression and scrutiny of artistic content, Chinese artists find themselves dancing with shackles.

What are we and who are we? The interrogation and contemplation have lingered on me for a long time.

As an art worker hailing from China but now residing in Europe, I find myself in a perpetual state of grappling with foreign languages. Despite frequent usage, I will never truly master a foreign language. I still tend to rely heavily on quoting phrases from my mother tongue and attempting to translate them into English, fully aware that I can never accurately convey their essence. In social settings where people discuss songs or movies, I instinctively try to place them within the context of Chinese culture. As an individual of Chinese ethnicity, I have watched countless Western movies and listened to numerous songs, yet I struggle to remember their titles accurately, as they have all been translated into Chinese. In essence, what I am attempting to do is to translate a translated culture. Having spent considerable time in Europe, I have come to the realization that I never truly belonged to either the Eastern or Western world. I find myself caught in between, lingering in a nebulous grey zone.

My aspiration is to acquire proficiency in at least one foreign language so that I can continue writing, as Chinese goes unread in Europe. Writing about contemporary art has been my passion for years, however, I now find myself feeling voiceless, lacking the appropriate words that once flowed effortlessly. It is as if the words are slipping away from me, beyond my grasp. I yearn for a dream in which I can converse in English, a sign that I am successfully acquiring the elusive language. Yet, such dreams elude me, leaving me voiceless even in the realm of dreams. Neither do I speak Chinese, as I would back in China, nor do I utter English or any other imagined language. In my dreams, my voice has been lost.

Moreover, whenever I delve into research for exhibitions and written works, the initial question that haunts me is, "Is it relevant?" I have been entangled in the clutches of this question for so long that I failed to critically scrutinize its inherent shortcomings.

Relevant to whom? What should determine its relevance? Should it cater to the tastes of the white majority or appease the artsy elites? Should it align with prevailing theories?

As you can imagine, those ongoing, exhaustive terms intertwine with my lofty and grandiose ambitions, lurking in the corner, waiting to be peeled away, layer by layer. So, where do I go from here, and which path should I tread? Perhaps towards a predestined future? As a pessimist, although the smell of fresh bread in the morning brings me joy, I do not dwell on a bright future. As a transient resident, my primary concern lies in securing enough funds to sustain myself.

In essence, I feel like a misfit, as I have struggled to develop my curatorial vocabulary. I have not made an earnest attempt to align myself with specific terms that confine me within the boundaries constructed by words and language. How audacious of me to express this rebellious desire to resist working within established vocabularies. Without a comprehensive curatorial vocabulary, I am even incapable of crafting my own biography. And without a polished bio, I am concerned about the lack of job opportunities that may come my way.

It eventually dawned on me that I chose to be here because I refused to conform to any form of categorization, a possibility that was unattainable in my homeland. My presence here is not driven by a desire to assert my own agency. On the contrary, I consciously choose not to master foreign languages and cultures, willingly subjecting myself to austere conditions. Along this journey, I open myself up to becoming a vessel, a receptacle for the "other." In my case, I lower my barriers, eagerly awaiting artists to occupy my body and mind. As Bachmann poignantly expresses the dilemma, Evelyn Taocheng Wang captures it in her drawing: "Ein Wort nur fehlt! Wie soll ich mich nennen, / ohne in anderer Sprache zu sein." ("Words fail! How shall I name myself, without living in another tongue?")

Prompted by grumble-like psychoanalysis, I found myself contemplating the intricate layers of the self. Eleanor Antin's mesmerizing performance lecture, titled "me, myself, and I," profoundly resonated with me. Through her performance, she skillfully unraveled the limitations of self-definition, challenging societal constructs of sex, age, talent, time, and space. Antin sought to expand the very concept of "self," liberating artists' identities and choices while creating an expansive canvas for artistic expression. Her work predominantly explores themes of identity and the evolving role of women in society. Drawing inspiration from her insights, I embrace the idea of multiple selves, creating room to navigate the complex condition of being a diasporic curator and writer.

From this point on, the self-doubt, questioning of systems, and dissatisfaction with reality revealed by my multiple selves will serve as the starting point for my practice. I will act as a vessel to accommodate the art that resonates with me.


Eleanor Antin; Me, Myself and I.

Analouise Keating, editor, The Gloria Anzaldua Reader

Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings An Asian American Reckoning

Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams & Arthur P. Bochner, Autoethnography: An Overview.

Gabriel Shefferm, Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad.